Monday, May 11, 2009

Tony Kushner on Liberal Arts Education

Taft-Kaufmann, Jill. "A TPQ Interview with Tony Kushner." Text and Performance Quarterly 24.1 (January 2004): 41-42.

Jill Taft-Kaufmann: I would be curious as to why you say that and what sort of an education you prize as a way to keep yourself a vital citizen, a vital human, and, of course, a professional, too.

Tony Kushner: I think I’m a real child of the Enlightenment, and I really believe in the liberal arts, and I believe in liberal arts education. I don’t think a fine arts education is a substitute for it. I feel that undergraduate theatre training is vocational education. I think it’s training for a career. And I think it’s great. If you’re an actor, if you really want to be a serious actor, you have to do a conservatory training program at some point. I don’t actually think I’ve ever met an eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-old who’s ready to do a conservatory training program, because conservatory training is, first of all, about stripping you of everything you thought you knew about acting. If you talk to anybody in a good conservatory program, you’ll hear that it’s a miserable experience, makes them fall apart. It’s like psychoanalysis for the first year. And in the old days, when you started psychoanalysis, you didn’t work. You just did psychoanalysis five days a week, because you were going to become dysfunctional for a while, and then you sort of put yourself back together. I think that acting training, in a sense, is like that. At any rate, I think there’s nothing you need to learn; it’s not like being a dancer. If you’re going to be a dancer or an oboe player, you have to start when you’re five or eight or ten, because you have to train your body to do this thing that it’s simply not biologically equipped to do. And that takes an incredibly long time. But there’s nothing in the theatre profession in acting, directing, playwriting, designing that requires you to train your body in that way at eighteen. What I do believe is that the genius of this system is that, at eighteen, you’re old enough and together enough and have enough energy so that when you become an old, desiccated wreck, which happens about five or six years later [laughter], you still have the energy of youth (and old people like me hate you for it), and you’ve got four years in which society will leave you alone, basically, to read. You’ll never have that time again. Ever, ever, ever. For most of us, that four years is an unbelievably important opportunity. If you don’t lay the groundwork to become a really educated person in those four years and have read the ridiculous amount that a good liberal arts education provides, as I’m sure you can find here—if you don’t get that in those four years—I worry that you won’t ever be able to get it again. Because you’ll never have those four years again, unless you do something extraordinary and drop out. But in this economy, there’s no safety net anymore, so it’s not something that anybody could necessarily advise that you do. That’s what freaks me out about it. I think it’s a replacement of liberal arts training with vocational training, because we all know what happens when there are too many students reading too many dangerous books. You have the sixties. You have the student revolution and the French Revolution. You have the 1848 revolution. Students are a dangerous political force. So, I believe there’s a sort of maligned political will. It may not be any one person’s decision, but I believe there is a political reason why the liberal arts education is more and more being replaced by training for jobs. And I don’t think you should necessarily, as an undergraduate, be training for a job. I don’t think you should know what you want to do yet.

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